This is the first in a series of posts on architecture communication skills by Emily Edwards and Aurora Murphy, with contributions from Samantha Donnelly. 

Architecture students don’t sleep, eat, or socialise before their ‘crit’ presentations. Instead, they madly draw, make and build their models. They worry about embarrassment in front of peers, teachers and important members from industry who are brought in as ‘jurors’ to watch them present. The stress is palpable.  

Yet despite the mad focus on preparing drawings and models, students often forget to focus on the important verbal communication skills required for these crits. Students with low levels of academic language especially struggle. While their drawings and models may be strong, some students may not be able to articulate how their work meets the project brief. So we decided to run an action research project to discover how to support architecture students who have identified language needs.   

In this first post, we unpack what we learnt about crit presentations.

What is a crit presentation?

The core component of architecture degrees is a series of ‘studio’ (practical project-based) subjects, in which students are given a design brief, asked to create drawings and models in response to the brief, and then present their work. The presentation part of this process is called the ‘critique’, also known informally as the ‘crit’. Other disciplines that use a similar form of presentation are art, design, and engineering. Crits can be more informal mid-project presentations as well as formal end-of-project events with panels of invited ‘jurors’. 

UTS Lecturer and architect Samantha Donnelly says that “presentations for crit sessions are the students’ opportunity to tell their story, and to animate their design thinking skills. Crit presentations enable students to gain valuable feedback from practitioners who can situate the student’s proposal in practical and professional contexts”. Yet the stakes are high and students can crumble under these high-reward but high-pressure situations. 

In a Guardian article, Susan Sheahan describes the architecture crit as “an emotional and theatrical assault course”, conjuring up an image of terrified students standing up to defend their work in front of their peers and industry professionals, as they brace themselves for “a volley of abuse” at the end of a long session of hard work. 

A highly authentic assessment

How is this potential “volley of abuse” a valuable and important form of architectural assessment? Well, one vital component is its authenticity.  

In their recent post ‘What is authentic assessment?’, Sylvia Singh and Amara Atif emphasise that authentic assessment tasks involve students performing “real-world tasks” that ask them to apply knowledge in practical ways that both engage students and allow tutors to accurately gauge learning.  

For most architects, their professional life will involve continuous crit sessions in practice, including responding to client briefs by creating innovative designs, pitching their designs to others, and responding to input from peers on collaborative projects as well as input from clients, builders, developers, and regulatory bodies. The crit mirrors many aspects of these communication processes. 

A multi-modal presentation

The architecture crit is also an example of a multi-modal presentation, incorporating six distinct ‘modes’ simultaneously, which is quite unique: 

  1. Oral presentation, normally of 3-5 minutes per student.
  2. Visual aids the student has produced such as drawings, plans and other images (e.g. sample images of building material or furniture), which pre-COVID were printed out as posters and pinned up on a board.
  3. 3D models of a building, room or landscape the student has produced, normally positioned on a nearby surface.
  4. Written text in the form of annotations and/or a design statement, normally included on the pinned up posters.
  5. Video presentation via Zoom since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and elements of video are often used when face to face now too.
  6. Dialogic engagement in listening to, responding to and giving feedback. 

A ritualistic tribal performance

As Deanna Dannels explains in her research, the crit is not just about assessing students’ knowledge, creative response and communication skills. She uses the metaphor of “ritualistic” or “tribal” performance to describe the design crit presentation as a means of the discipline performing its culture, reliving its historical roots and socialising newcomers (the students) into the group. By enacting these multi-modal rituals multiple times per session throughout their courses, students are encultured into the discipline of architecture, including its specific language and communication practices. 

In our next post, we’ll explore some of the challenges of performing the crit, with a particular focus on the communication practices involved. 

Further reading

To learn more about the crit process, take a look at this informative paper: Three studio critiquing cultures: Fun follows function or function follows fun?.

Feature image by Jon Tyson.

  • Thanks Aurora for your comment. Yes, I agree that the crit presentation can be a wonderful celebration of student work! Students need constructive feedback on their crits from academics and peers to be ‘encultured’ into the architecture discipline, but encouragement is equally as important to build their confidence as future architects.

  • Thank you, it’s so interesting to hear how students can be supported to cope with this really important, but also really stressful (‘torrent of abuse’!) form of architecture. The ‘crit’ is often feared, but also can be a celebration and encouragement of student work. Thanks for also explaining how the crit fits in with ‘authentic assessment’.

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